Japanese trade minister heads to Beijing for talks with premier

Japan 's trade minister headed to Beijing on Tuesday for talks with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, in the highest-level contact between the two Asian powers since relations soured sharply last year. The trip was part of an effort by Tokyo and Beijing to repair ties that have been severely frayed by festering disputes over undersea gas deposits, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's visits to a Tokyo war shrine, and other issues.

Japanese Trade Minister Toshihiro Nikai left Tuesday evening, according to ministry official Yasuyuki Tokairin. Tokyo had requested a meeting with Wen, but the Chinese Foreign Ministry had not publicly confirmed it until an hour before Nikai's scheduled departure.

China had rebuffed Japan 's entreaties for anything higher than working-level talks since last October, when Koizumi paid a visit to Yasukuni Shrine, which China derides as a glorification of Tokyo 's wartime conquests in East Asia . Koizumi said earlier in the day that he hoped the meeting would help chart the path for better relations between the two countries.

"I am an advocate of friendly relations between China and Japan ," he told reporters. "Therefore, I have asked that they talk carefully about what is necessary for future-oriented, friendly relations." Still, Koizumi refused to rule out a further visit to the Yasukuni Shrine, saying, as he has before previous visits, that he would "decide appropriately" when asked if he would go there again.

Nikai was also to meet with Chinese Commerce Minister Bo Xilai and Chinese State Councilor Tang Jiaxuan, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said. Kyoko Kato, of the Japanese Trade Ministry's Northeast Asian section, said the meeting with Bo was expected on Wednesday. The ministry said it didn't have details on any other meetings. Nikai was to come back to Japan on Thursday.

Japanese media reports said the dispute over gas was expected to be discussed. China has extracted gas from one of several fields in the East China Sea , triggering protests from Japan , which fears the reserves might run dry. Previous talks aimed at resolving the issue have produced little progress. Wen has not met with a Japanese Cabinet minister since Beijing angrily protested Koizumi's shrine visit in October last year. Critics say the shrine, which includes convicted war criminals among those it honors, glorifies Japanese imperialism.

Relations between the two nations have also plummeted over a spate of disputes, including a row over the death of a Japanese consulate worker in Shanghai and differing interpretations of Japan 's invasion of China in the lead up to World War II, reports the AP.


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